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The Obama administration’s position on Syria is clear. Administration officials have said that Bashar Assad’s days are numbered and affirmed that the goal is a “democratic transition” that would see Assad deposed from power. President Obama has added moral urgency to the situation, condemning Assad’s brutal 11-month crackdown on dissent and vowing that “cruelty must be confronted for the sake of justice and human dignity.” For all the forcefulness of its intentions, though, the administration has yet to spell out a concrete course for ousting Assad and ending the violence.
Diplomacy seems to be the administration’s preferred strategy for regime change, at least judging from the desperate way in which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to win Russian support for a UN Security Council resolution backing Assad’s exit. But as Russia and China’s obdurate refusal to part ways with Assad shows, there will be no such unanimity at the UN. Neither country seems to have been moved by Syria’s humanitarian crisis, as UN ambassador Susan Rice’s admonition that both countries “will have any future blood spilled on their hands” plainly has fallen on deaf ears.
Russia and China’s backing isn’t necessary to tighten sanctions or to seize the regime’s finances abroad, but these measures may have reached diminishing returns. Switzerland and the EU have already frozen Assad and his lieutenants’ assets and it’s not clear how much more can be done on this front. Powerful economic sanctions have already been pushed through by the European Union, Turkey, and the Arab League, meanwhile, and while their impact will certainly be felt in Damascus it’s unlikely to be decisive. As international sanctions expert Daniel Drezner points out, sanctions alone rarely collapse regimes as determined to hold on to power as Assad’s.
The administration’s least-preferred option – the use of force – is also unlikely. Although the Department of Defense has said that it is reviewing all options for Syria, the administration has been at pains to stress that it has not been considering a Libya-style military intervention. Speaking with NBC’s Matt Lauer last Sunday, President Obama stressed that it is “very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention.” Obama added that he thought that was “possible.”
This reluctance may seems strange coming from the Obama administration, particularly considering its willingness to use force in Libya, where Moammar Qadaffi only threatened the kind of collective punishment and humanitarian disaster that Assad has already inflicted on Syrians. But according to national security reporter Laura Rozen, the administration considers Syria a different case for several reasons.
First, Syria’s location matters more than Libya’s. Syria’s neighbors – Iraq, Israel, Turkey – make the threat of regional instability arising from military intervention far more worrying. There is also the matter of Syria’s internal sectarian divisions and its fractured political opposition. Not only are there long-running tensions between the majority Sunnis and the Alawaite sect of Assad, but there is feuding even among the two leading opposition groups, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body, who fell out most recently after disagreeing about the use of foreign force against Assad.
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